Culture

At Home in Vegas

(Photo: Welcomia/Dreamstime)
Sin City is surprisingly conservative.

Las Vegas was, for a time, home. I spent a happy year there living outside the city on a ridge overlooking the Strip, from Mandalay Bay down the road to all the other brightly lit curiosities. It was and is a great place to live, and the events of Sunday evening will not change that.

Las Vegas, the largest American city incorporated in the 20th century, is a strangely conservative place. I want to write “in spite of” its hallmark industry and its infamous entertainment district, but it might very well be because of the vulgarity and vice for which Vegas is famous. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” they say, but everyone knows that is not so — not always.

Mostly, Las Vegas is just good fun, cheerfully ersatz — why not build an Eiffel Tower and a New York skyline? — though the Strip has for some years been developing in a way that almost nobody could have seen coming: tastefully. The newest hotels and clubs are sleek and cosmopolitan (so cosmopolitan you might hear four or five languages spoken while having a cosmopolitan at the Cosmopolitan), the prime-rib buffets have been replaced by Michelin-starred restaurants (try Wing Lei), and at the nicest bar on the Strip, you cannot — this would once have been unthinkable — smoke, or gamble, or even expect to run into a hooker.

But the Strip — the weird little village of Vegas Baby — is only a small part of life in Las Vegas. Sunday Mass at St. Francis Church is at times literally standing-room-only, and it’s not the only one. It is not really true that the locals never go to the Strip, but they are also an outdoorsy bunch: hiking, hunting, fishing. There’s a great sporting-clays course, and a dozen great golf courses. And, sometimes, you just turn your Jeep off the road and go into the desert, where the coyotes look at you like they’re expecting you to ask for directions. If you’re lucky enough to have a swimming pool, you can use it in February, and get a nice winter tan.

But the Village of Vegas Baby has a funny way of working its way into everyday life, too. I went into a Whole Foods in nearby Henderson late one evening and saw a very pretty young woman walk by who looked for all the world like Taylor Swift. For a second, I thought it was Taylor Swift, until it occurred to me that she was an off-duty Taylor Swift impersonator. Elvis isn’t the only one who has stand-ins working in Vegas. At the same Whole Foods, I also saw a woman who wasn’t wearing any pants and wasn’t impersonating anybody at all so far as I could tell. I suppose the line between pantyhose and yoga pants is, from the right point of view, permeable.

The massacre was horrifying. There isn’t any place you want to have a massacre, of course, but there is something especially heartbreaking about having this happen on the Strip — a place dedicated to nothing more or less than having fun. I am not so naïve as to think that every kind of indulgence on offer in Las Vegas is entirely harmless, but Las Vegas is in my experience one of our least offensive cities, full of decent and hardworking people, kind and indulgent, living and working in the shadow of the international circus in the middle of it all. They’re veterans and immigrants and business owners who listen to a lot of jokes about the lovely, sunny, very livable city they call home. They’re tolerant, and they have good reason to be. And if the folks from Muleshoe want to come and stay at Caesars Palace, play a little blackjack, drink some cocktails, see a show, and spend their money, there’s nothing terribly wrong with that.

Las Vegas is in my experience one of our least offensive cities, full of decent and hardworking people, kind and indulgent, living and working in the shadow of the international circus in the middle of it all.

And there’s a funny flip side to Las Vegas’s purported libertarianism, a kind of corporate nanny state. (You think gambling is legal in Nevada? Try organizing a church raffle.) Las Vegas really does not want to arrest you for drunk driving or to see you suffer anything other than the loss of a sum of money big enough to miss but not so large as to keep you from coming back next year. Poor Vince Neil, the singer from Mötley Crüe, came out of a casino having had one or two cocktails too many and went into a rage when the valet wouldn’t get him his Rolls-Royce. He pulled the old “Do you know who I am?” routine. Of course the valet knew. That’s why he wouldn’t get him his car. He’d had a DUI before in Vegas. Bartenders are well-practiced in dealing with toasted tourists inquiring about prostitution, which is legal in some rural areas not far from Las Vegas but strictly verboten in Sin City itself. “That isn’t a conversation we can have,” they’ll say. Steely eyes, slightly ironic smile. “Would you like another drink?”

There are downsides: An old friend of mine raising children there told me how she had to drive miles out of her way when taking her children to school in order to avoid the gigantic billboards advertising the Adult Video News Awards, a.k.a. the “porn Oscars.” But, mainly, Las Vegas is like a big, cheerful Rancho Mirage with a more convenient airport and without the hassles of living in California.

People will keep going to Las Vegas for the same reasons they’ve always gone, and the cleverer among them might look around a little bit and discover some new ones. A few of them might decide to stay, as I did, at least for a while, and learn to appreciate the very real virtues of a city supposedly built on vice.

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— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.

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